La Bise Français

The door of number 15 is slightly ajar, and as I approach I smell the aroma of freshly baked bread. Control often tells people to leave the door open, so that we have an easier time finding the right apartment. I knock, announce my arrival, wait a few seconds, and walk inside. The foyer is bright, airy and clean; the atmosphere is remarkably calm – quite contrary to the usual chaos of an emergency scene. A middle aged woman emerges from the back of the house, wearing an apron.

“Bonjour!” she says.

“Hey, how does she know I speak French?” I wonder.


Let’s not get carried away, Shmeel. French was compulsory in high school, and the truth of the matter, is that I failed miserably. I averaged 33% on my exam results throughout the year, and was disallowed from taking the finals. In the principal’s own words: “So that you don’t humiliate the school in the national results.”

No wonder I have such a healthy self-esteem.

My pillar of support during this difficult time was my Mother, who always insisted,”You speak French beautifully!” Thank you Mum.


Back to our story – conversation in Français:


LADY: Hello, how are you?

ME: My mother; she is cold.


LADY: I am sorry to hear that!

ME: (Gesturing towards the stairwell) There is a duck in my elevator!


LADY: You have a duck?

ME: Yes!


Why I said yes is a complete mystery, to this very day.


Introductions over, I follow her to the main bedroom.

The patient, an elderly lady in her nineties is on the floor, and is being supported by two middle aged women. I could have continued in French, but for some reason the apron lady switches over to Hebrew, and starts talking very slowly and deliberately. It was as if she thought I had a communication problem!?

Go figure.

“This is our mother,” she says in a loud and clear voice; staccato style to be more precise.

“She is healthy – we don’t need any medical assistance – just a man to lift her back onto the bed.”

“Ok, sure, no problem,” I reply. I can do that.

I start moving into a proper lifting position, and then reconsider. If three women had been unable to lift her, I certainly wasn’t going to try by myself; enough embarrassment for one day.

Plan B

“Control: Unit#18 requesting backup for ‘assistance in lifting’ please.”

It is not uncommon for elderly people to unexpectedly find themselves on the floor, and need help getting back on their feet, or their bed, in this instance. Our job is to assess the patient, understand the kinematics of the fall, and take their vitals. If everything is in order, we lift them up, and the person can indeed stay at home and continue their day.

I ask the standard questions and learn that she had slipped while getting out of bed, but had fallen to the ground in ‘slow motion’, because one of the daughters had caught her just in time. Vitals were normal and she didn’t have any specific pain.

Diagnosis: Pick her up, and let her go eat breakfast.

Problem: It would take at least another four minutes for my backup to arrive, and I was alone, in a room with 4 French speaking women.

Solution: No worries, I’ll pass the time with some small talk.


In hindsight: This was a colossal error.

In hindsight: My principal was right.

In hindsight: I should have said, “Je ne parle pas français,” and made myself a cup of tea.

In hindsight: Miraculously though, I still have a healthy self-esteem.


What then transpired would be remembered for posterity; by the patient, her children, me, and now, the world.

Do let me explain.

You see, there are words in the French language and indeed in every language that sound awfully similar, but have entirely different meanings.

I managed to utilize 4 such conundrums in the 4 minutes I was there alone.

Yes, I have a knack for languages. So what of it.


I turn to the elderly patient and say in the strongest terms;

What I meant to say        I definitely think you will be ok

What I actually said         I invalidate your health


The Patient gives me an awkward look and so I rephrase in case she hadn’t understood;

What I meant to say        There is someone on the way to help me lift you

What I actually said         There is a volcano about to erupt in the room


She starts laughing uncontrollably. I suspect she has dementia, so I turn to the middle sister and whisper;

What I meant to say        It seems her memory is full of gaps

What I actually said         It seems she drowned in this lagoon


The joviality proves contagious and everyone is giggling. I assume that it’s an involuntary reaction to a nervous situation and so I try to defuse the tension;

What I meant to say        Let us hope for a miracle

What I actually said         Let us hope she spends the money unwisely


Thankfully my backup arrives, cutting me short of what was to be the ‘grand finale’.

We each take hold of one side and “On my count: un, deux, trois” – we successfully lift her back onto her bed.

I am about to take my leave, when, ‘la petite vieille dame’, motions me to come closer.

She takes my arm in hers, kisses me on the back of my hand and says;

“Yoo Cpeek Frranche Beeyootifully!”

Thank you, Madam, I know I do – my Mother’s told me so all along.


Voilà c’est fini


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